Hanging with Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway is Key West, Florida’s, most famous literary son and when they celebrate his legacy they do it in style
The judges are a powerful group of past winners – the Papas – who gather each year to select the next member of their elite group. Each Hemingway wannabe has a short speech prepared designed to pull a vote their way, to get them through the heats and into the finals.
Some sing, some plead and some tell a joke, while one admitted that a win would secure him a great night in with his wife – or in supposed Hemingway fashion someone else’s wife (Hemingway was married four times). This got him a cheer from the crowd but it takes more than bravado to win. The heats last for two days and the day of the final culminates in a mock running of the bulls through Key West as well as the triumphant announcement of the winner – in this case it turns out to be Greg Fawcett of North Carolina who, in his 10th year trying, finally stole the prize.
Behind this very public facade the literary side of the festival is also in full swing. I wander along Duval Street to a local gallery to one of the headline events. Crime writer Michael Haskins is giving a reading from his latest Mick Murphy crime novel, Car Wash Blues. His books, set in and around the Florida Keys, reveal a side of the keys we’ll never meet but is vivid and alive in Haskins’ story telling.
Key West is a magnet for creative people, its beautiful wooden architecture framing new lives for countless artists, writers and musicians. Over at the Tropic Cinema, Brian Gordon Sinclair has taken over the main auditorium with his latest take on the Hemingway story, In Deadly Ernest. Sinclair is a Canadian playwright with Irish citizenship who has found his life rapidly entwined with Hemingway’s story. Through this play and his five-part series on the life of the writer, Sinclair has become a renowned authority on the Hemingway story and its place in the literary world. His portrayal is exciting and real and the audience, in true North American fashion, cheer and laugh in equal measure – a much more confident audience than we’re used to at home.
Nearby is 907 Whitehead Street, Hemingway’s home. It’s a museum now and the tours that take place there bring you face-to-face with this literary landmark. His writing studio, his living areas, the fantastic outdoor pool and even the living descendants of his famous six-toed cat. The house is a national historic landmark and well worth visiting. But it’s not the only property that bears his legacy.
Lorian Hemingway is Ernest’s granddaughter and over the past 10 years she has developed what has become one of the more important short story competitions in the US, with more than 1,300 entries from around the world. On the last night of the festival, we gather in Hemingway’s first port of call, Casa Antigua on Simonton Street, to announce the winner. Long converted from a garage with apartments above to a private home, it’s now a landmark building with spectacular atrium gardens and we’re privileged to visit. Hemingway’s bedroom is preserved and protected on the first floor and the gardens are open to visitors. Now in its 33rd year, last year’s honourable mentions included two Irish writers, Patrick McCusker from Wicklow and Damien de Burca from Dublin. It’s exciting to be there for the announcement. There’s an energy in this beautiful house that matches the event, and a reading from the winning story captures the sense of importance in the written word.